Driven to despair

Executive summary

Between April 2014 and March 2015, we received eight complaints about the Drivers Medical Group (DMG)1, the part of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA)2 that considers whether drivers with a medical condition are safe to drive. The complaints concerned licensing decisions made by DMG between 2009 and 2014. The complaints were about delays by DMG in making licensing decisions, poor communication, the quality of the information provided, and poor complaint handling. People told us that DMG’s handling of their cases prevented them from driving for an unreasonable period of time, causing them losses of employment and freedom, and significant levels of stress and frustration. Several people’s cases took years to resolve, and in most cases DVLA failed to accept that it had made mistakes or handled things poorly.

Putting things right for the people who had brought their complaint to us was our priority. We have therefore investigated all eight of these complaints, and in six3 of those the failings identified have been remedied in full by DVLA. The similarities in the eight complaints pointed to a potentially wider problem with the way DVLA handles medical fitness to drive cases. This report sets out our findings on the overarching similarities between these cases as well as recommendations for improvement to the system as a whole.

Taking into account the regulatory and legislative requirements on DVLA, we expect DMG to:

  • make fitness to drive decisions in accordance with the law and guidance;
  • operate an open and transparent decision-making process, so that the public can understand the reasons for its decisions;
  • take relevant factors into account and discount irrelevant ones; and
  • engage with the public and stakeholders so that there is clarity about its roles and responsibilities and so that licence holders and other stakeholders properly understand what is required of them.

Our investigations have shown that this does not currently happen. We have found fault in the way that DMG operates, which means that it is not meeting its obligations. We have seen no evidence that proper standards or criteria are in place to enable DMG to meet its required aim of road safety. We have seen no attempt to relate medical conditions to functional ability to drive safely. We have also seen a lack of assessment of condition specific risks and how those risks might affect road safety.

During the course of our investigations, the Glasgow bin lorry inquiry4 was concluded. Its findings echo our own. It found that the system needs to be easier for GPs to use, and that DVLA needs to engage more with people who use its service, particularly the medical profession. It went so far as to suggest that DVLA should produce a flow chart to assist medical professionals advising patients in the area of loss of consciousness.

In almost every case we investigated, the driver was eventually given the licence that they had applied for, thereby overturning DVLA’s original decision and showing that the decision-making processes followed are flawed. This led to significant levels of unnecessary inconvenience and distress, sometimes over several years.

That inconvenience and distress has, in the cases we have seen, only been made worse by DVLA’s complaint handling which we have found to be defensive, demonstrating a failure to admit when things go wrong, and a failure to learn from complaints to make the process better.

We are therefore recommending that DVLA:

  • apologises to the individuals who have complained to us about their individual cases;
  • produces a set of clear evidence-based standards to assess whether people are fit to drive that take into account risk within the UK context5, and that are in line with the requirements of the Regulators’ Code6 ;
  • takes account of the evidence in this report to design a process that is administratively fit for purpose in all cases, including the most complex cases, and meets the requirements of the Regulators’ Code;
  • improves its communication so that information about fitness to drive is readily available, open, transparent and understood by both applicants and the medical profession, and is in line with the requirements of the Regulators’ Code;
  • provides remedies to the eight people who complained to us to put them back in the position that they would have been in if there had not been any failings; and
  • designs and puts in place appropriate arrangements so that others who may have been affected by the failings we have found have the opportunity to seek appropriate redress. When considering the design of the arrangements, DVLA should take account of HM Treasury’s guidance Managing Public Money.7

As the responsible Department, the Department for Transport should:

use all relevant information, including from complaints and stakeholders, to make sure that DMG’s process fully meets the needs of people who use its service and also the legislation.

In response to our findings DVLA has accepted that it has not always got things right in assessing people’s fitness to drive, and agrees with the findings in our report. It has told us about work that it has already started and projects it has planned, and says it will put right the failings that we have identified. It says the Department for Transport has recently published a motoring services reform strategy8. DMG is a significant part of that strategy and the Department for Transport will monitor its performance over the next four years. Although we note the steps DVLA has already taken, we think there is more that it can do as we have set out in this report and in our recommendations.

The Department for Transport has accepted most of our recommendations. It has not agreed to introduce arrangements aimed at others who may have been affected by the failings we have found. The Department for Transport’s response has been to say it will review previous complaints in line with our findings using its existing complaints process. This approach does not address the many other people potentially affected who have not previously complained.

The Department for Transport has also not agreed to produce a set of evidence-based standards for assessing fitness to drive. In response to our report it has said its current standards will remain subject to continuous improvement. It is not clear to us how DVLA will be able to respond to the problems we have identified in this report recurring for other drivers in future without reviewing it’s current standards.


1 DMG is the part of DVLA that considers whether drivers with a medical condition are safe to drive. It makes between 600,000 and 750,000 licensing decisions every year.

2 DVLA is an executive agency of the Department for Transport with responsibility for driver and vehicle licensing. As part of its role it also ensures that those who have a driving licence (both for ordinary and commercial or vocational vehicles) are safe to drive.

3 One of the complainants was not in a position to submit a claim for financial remedy to DVLA before we had completed his individual investigation. In the final case, we are still in the process of agreeing the appropriate level of financial remedy due with DVLA.

4 A fatal accident inquiry was carried out by Sheriff John Beckett QC following the loss of consciousness at the wheel of a Glasgow bin lorry driver in December 2014 which resulted in the death of six people.

5 DVLA’s current standards are measured against a formula devised with Canadian road safety and usage in mind.

6 The Regulators’ Code is a set of regulatory principles which all regulators should abide by. 

7 Managing Public Money

8 Department for Transport, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency and Vehicle Certification Agency: Motoring Services Strategy